The Big Interview: Mike Hughes

August 2018: Mike Hughes, recent winner of the EFA Lifetime Achievement award, has been in conversation with his veterans-winning partner Grant Williams about his life in Fives.

An abridged version of this article appeared in the Fives Federation summer newsletter.

GW: When and where did you first come across Fives?

MH: My first Lent Term at Shrewsbury School in 1976 found me at rugby trials. Having played rugby at prep school it was the natural thing to do but everyone appeared to have been eating a very different diet to me and were massive! Self-preservation made me look around for an alternative. I saw the Fives courts and asked around in School house. Two senior lads pushed me in the right direction, Francis Boys-Stones and Richard Ivill.

GW: What are your memories of Fives at Shrewsbury?

MH: Fives was somewhat rudimentary at Shrewsbury in those days, there were no coaches and we could only offer up one pair for one fixture against Uppingham. I played with Julian Linnell. My great influence at Shrewsbury was Chris Sturdy, at that time captain of fives and all round Sportsman. I always remember being in awe sat in the same bus on the way to Uppingham.

At U15s I continued to played with Julian, mostly internal matches, we had a very buoyant internal league but we still weren't playing in the Schools' Nationals.

Everything changed in 1977 with the arrival of Mark Williams, who virtually overnight brought order and organisation to Shrewsbury Fives. Suddenly we had a fixture list and found ourselves in mini buses travelling all over the country. Annoyingly I missed the Nationals due to illness.

In the Lower Sixth I was captain and played in the Nationals with Roddy Trow, exiting very early. In my final year I played with Tim Anderson, a very fine left hander and we had some good wins but always found ourselves a couple of years experience short of some of the other schools. My biggest memories of those days were the London tours which were legendary as a boarder living all the way out in Shrewsbury. Mark Williams made sure that Shrewsbury always fulfilled their London commitments and there was no shortage of volunteers to make the journeys. In those days only Eton and Highgate used to come to Shrewsbury, much as it is today in fact!

GW: Was it easy to carry on playing after you’d left school?

MH: After School I had a gap year and played for The Old Edwardian Colts run by Richard Lambert. I would travel down to Birmingham from Manchester, jump into Richard's car or minibus with a load of 14 and 15 year old Edwardian schoolboys and play matches all over London over the weekend. I have to take my hat off to Richard for making the commitment and running it.

The following year I went to Queen Mary College in London and started playing for the Old Salopians, which was being run at that time by the legend that was Mike Harding. At the same time I started playing regular tournaments with my old pal Grant Williams. The Old Salopians unbelievably didn't have any league teams and all the matches played, of which there were many, were friendlies. All were organised ad hoc by Mike Harding purely because of his love for the game and the Old Salopians.

My first league Fives apart from a few guest appearances for The Village were in the mid to late 1980s when The Salopians really decided to get their act together. Geoff Davies, Charlie Brookfield and others from Shrewsbury made a commitment to travel down at weekends and play double headers on a Sunday to get established in the leagues. Such was the strength that often I couldn't get in the team.

GW: What have been your highlights playing for the Old Salopians?

MH: I think the biggest Old Salopian game was when we beat the Old Edwardians in the Barber Cup final in 1993. I had just taken over the captaincy from Robin Topham. The Old Eds had beaten the invincible Old Cholmelians in the semis. It was a great day for the Old Salopians, who had finally won the major club trophy originally donated by an Old Salopian. It had been the monkey on our back and as captain I was immensely proud.

Having won the Barber my next goal was to try and win the League. I took over the running but it was like herding cats. Trying to run fives teams can be a thankless task sometimes! Chris Hughes now runs the Old Salopians so it must be something in the genes. We did go on to win the league a few times in the 1990s, however. The next goal was to grow the club and have two teams in the first and second division and to demonstrate that the Salopians could produce some depth. We won the Barber again in 1999 when I was still captain. All this was possible because we had a core of players who were all great mates and wanted to turn out regularly for one another, always the secret to a successful club.

I kept captaining the Barber Cup side until 2002 when it was passed on to Ed Taylor. We won again in 2003. The ten years was enough, the natural ebb and flow of things.

GW: What have been your other great memories from your playing career, away from the Old Salopians?

MH: On a very personal level in 2004 I won the Keeling Cup which was a very special moment and probably against all the odds. At the end of the season I won by just 1/2 a point. How did I do it? I made sure I played in every single match and therefore received no penalties, which just goes to show that commitment can pay dividends. My next highlight was playing with my son Chris at third pair in the Barber Cup final in 2010. Since then I have really enjoyed playing in The Father & Sons and The Vets tournament. Every year I ask my partner if we can play in the next age group but he won't let me!

GW: How did you get into coaching?

MH: Since 2011 I have been coaching Fives at Eton College, a role that came about after a chance conversation with Mark Williams – it’s amazing how life comes round full circle! It has been a most enjoyable period and chance to pass on my experience to the next generation. The highlights there have been winning the Williams Team Cup three years running demonstrating once again strength in depth. Any coach can be lucky enough from time to time to have two gifted players but to be able to develop 7 or 8 in one season is the challenge and shows that the students are enjoying it.

The legacy that I hope I will leave from my time in Eton is the number of those I taught who will carry on playing because of their love of the game they developed whilst at school and at the moment that is looking very positive.

GW: What do you think it is about Fives that makes it so special?

MH: Whilst it has been a privilege to be part of Cup winning teams it has been the friendship and enjoyment over the years that stands out. A game played at high intensity in a confined space with no referees is very exciting and brings out the best in people. This carries on afterwards in the pub and has formed the basis of some of my closest friendships.

I look back over the years at those who influenced me: Mark Williams, Mike Harding, House Masters Tom Wheare and Dicky (Richard) Field and their willingness to give up their time and go the extra mile to encourage youngsters to play. I also remember those purists with a magic touch, Robin Moulsdale, John Reynolds – the Nureyev of Fives – and Martin Smith, elegant and a joy to watch.

We all deserve a little luck in our lives and mine was being too small for Rugby. When I think how much joy Fives has given me over the years I am thankful for that decision back in 1976. Whilst my time as coach at Eton comes to an end another chapter in my Fives journey starts and I look forward to meeting many of you on court in the future.